America Needs A Can’t Do Military

W.J. Astore

“Can-do” is an attitude that’s common, indeed obligatory, in the U.S. military. “Can’t do” is for quitters, for losers, for the “whiskey deltas” (weak dicks) who don’t have “the right stuff” to succeed. Yet I’d argue the U.S. military could use a few good men and women who are willing to say “can’t do,” not because they’re losers or lazy or otherwise “weak,” but because they’re smart and willing to speak uncomfortable truths.

“Saluting smartly” goes along with a “can-do” attitude. But was it sensible to salute smartly and invade Afghanistan and seek to remake a complex and decentralized tribal society into a centralized pseudo-democracy? Was it sensible to invade and occupy Iraq, disband its army, and seek to remake an ethnically and religiously fractured society, previously controlled by an authoritarian dictator, into a centralized pseudo-democracy? And by “remake,” I mean imposing a new government by often violent means by outsiders (yes, that’s us). Of course it wasn’t sensible, as events proved. These were “can’t do” scenarios, and never-should-have-done wars, and the U.S. military should have said so, and loudly, rather than saluting smartly and lying year after year about “progress.”

Sometimes, integrity means admitting that you can’t do. It recalls a line from Dirty Harry in “Magnum Force”: A man’s got to know his limitations. Not everything is achievable or even desirable, no matter how much money and “Hooah!” spirit you throw at the problem.

But officers in the military don’t get promoted for saying “can’t do,” no matter how sensible the sentiment may be. You’ve got to make it work, or die or lie trying, no matter the folly of it all. Here I recall a weapon system I worked on in the Air Force in the mid-1990s. It was over-budget, under-performing, and also being overtaken by newer, cheaper, technologies that flight crews liked better. But my job (and possibly my future promotion) hinged on refusing to recognize this truth. Instead, I had to do my part to make the “bad” system work — or seem to work.

As I recently wrote to a fellow former Air Force officer: As a captain, I worked on a project that probably should have been canceled. But the pressure on me was to make it work, at least my piece of it. Jobs depended on it. We are a can-do military even when can’t- or shouldn’t-do would be the much wiser course of action.

This fellow officer, also a captain and engineer, sent along this perceptive comment:

I don’t know about your path to promotion, but in my Support Group position, our annual performance reviews and officer promotion path was dependent upon being responsible for an ever expanding budget, year after year. I could never see a situation where being in charge of less compared to the previous year was ever a positive if one wanted to make a career out of military service. It really didn’t matter if the expansion was due to the inclusion of unnecessary spending. After I left active duty it finally sank in that all of the personal/professional incentives are to continually spend more, never to save the taxpayer money. I have since felt that the personal promotion incentive is one of several internal systems that creates the environment that is present; where DoD spending is commonly and fairly criticized for fraud, waste and abuse and why there are few incentives for the military leadership to do a better job of advising the civilian leadership to war less.

So, for example, saying “can’t do” while saving money is often the worst sort of action one could make if you want to get ahead in the military. Saying “can-do” while burning through money and accomplishing nothing but an expansion of next year’s budget is, however, rewarded by the system. You have proven yourself to be a “team player,” irrespective of results.

Of course, what America really needs is not a can- or can’t-do military but rather one with unimpeachable integrity in its oath to the U.S. Constitution. That oath carries with it an obligation to speak the truth, and a willingness to put the truth before conformity and ambition and “going along to get along.”

Our history since 9/11 would have been far different if the U.S. military knew its limitations and was willing to say “can’t do” when it was given unachievable objectives.